High school football players on 14 mostly Bay Area teams convene one Saturday in Pittsburg. They engage in the modern summer ritual of 7-on-7, a scaled-down version of the game featuring quarterbacks flinging passes and receivers trying to outmaneuver defenders.
The players wear shorts and practice jerseys. Some don soft headgear, but what’s missing is notable: no linemen, no helmets or shoulder pads, no tackling.
Less than three weeks later, in Houston, several former pro players — including onetime Cal running backs Jahvid Best and Justin Forsett — compete in the American Flag Football League final. NFL Network televises the game. Again: no linemen, no helmets or shoulder pads, no tackling.
Is this what football will look like in the future?
That might seem extreme, but envisioning how America’s most popular spectator sport will be played in 20 or 30 years carries complications. As participation at younger levels dips amid concerns about concussions and the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, and as the pro and college games adopt rules changes intended to make an inherently violent sport safer, the future becomes murky.
Participation in high school football in the U.S., which peaked in 2008, fell 6.9 percent by 2017, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), to 1,035,942. (Football still counted as the nation’s most popular boys sport by a wide margin.) The drop in California was even more severe: from a peak of 107,916 in 2006 to 94,286 in 2017, per the California Interscholastic Federation. That’s a decrease of 12.6 percent.
Moreover, football players sustain more concussions than other high school athletes, according to a 2017 study in the Journal of Athletic Training. That report, covering the 2011-12 through 2013-14 school years, found football players are 16 times more likely to suffer a concussion than baseball players, and four times more likely than male basketball players.
Plus, after an athlete’s initial concussion, the chances of sustaining another one are three to six times higher than someone who hasn’t had a concussion, according to Prevacus, a company focusing on new treatment for concussions. And the stakes are especially high for young athletes: A 2017 paper in the Annals of Neurology suggested a concussion in adolescence is associated with a greater risk of developing multiple sclerosis later in life.
Also worth noting, the NFL experienced a 16.4 percent increase in concussions last season to 291, the league’s highest total since adopting its injury-tracking system in 2012.
The NFL’s financial success (league revenue topped $14 billion last year), along with the huge sums of money tied to college football, suggests the game will remain eternally embedded in our culture, at least at the highest levels. But in what form? It’s an open and reasonable question, especially when taking the long-range view.
Consider the near-abandonment of live tackling in practices; ejections for ferocious, once-celebrated, helmet-to-helmet hits; and radical changes to kickoffs designed to discourage returns. Those ideas would have been dismissed as blasphemy 20 or 30 years ago.
Now high school coaches such as Patrick Walsh of Serra-San Mateo strike a realistic tone. Walsh, who played at De La Salle-Concord in the early 1990s, loves football and wants it to prosper. He also recognizes the need to adapt.
That’s why Walsh supports rules changes meant to minimize head injuries, and it also helps explain why he launched Next Level Flag Football, an ambitious program for kids ages 5 to 14. Its rapid growth since 2011, reaching nearly 30 sites and 1,500 participants this year, makes Walsh wonder what the future holds.
“I can see this becoming a high school sport at some point,” he said. “I think at first it will be in addition (to tackle football), but who knows how far this will go 20 to 30 years from now? The game has changed so much in just the past 10 years.”
The decades ahead promise even more change.
Fast forward to 2048 and picture a game sharply different, in many ways, than what fans are accustomed to watching today. Among the likely scenarios:
This probably will happen much sooner than 30 years, thanks in part to the Ivy League.
The conference moved kickoffs to the 40-yard line in 2016 (from the 35), in an effort to reduce violent, high-speed collisions and limit the damage from kickoffs, which cause a disproportionate number of concussions. Kickoffs previously produced 23.4 percent of the Ivy League’s concussions, despite accounting for only 5.8 percent of all plays.
In the first two seasons after the new rules took effect in conference games — including moving touchbacks (on kicks into the end zone) from the 25-yard line to the 20, and allowing receiving teams to make fair catches inside the 25 and get the ball at the 25 — kickoff returns and injury numbers plunged. (This year, the Ivy League is following a new NCAA rule placing touchbacks at the 25-yard line.)
The league’s mean annual concussion rate per 1,000 kickoffs dropped from 10.93 before the changes (in 2013-15) to 2.04 after (2016-17), according to a study published Oct. 1 in the Journal of the American Medical Association.The number of touchbacks increased from 17.9 percent in 2013-15 to 48 percent the past two seasons.
“Our results are good now,” Ivy League executive director Robin Harris said, “but if we see more pooch kicks (intentionally short kicks), and players returning kicks from the 10-yard line, then I’m not as optimistic.”
The NCAA tweaked its rules this season to permit fair catches inside the 25, while keeping kickoffs at the 35. The NFL also made changes aimed at reducing high-speed collisions. League officials have said kickoffs are four times more likely than other plays to result in concussions.
Among the rule changes in response were eliminating players on the kicking team from getting a 5-yard running start, as in the past (they now line up 1 yard behind the line); and allowing only three players on the receiving team to line up more than 15 yards downfield.
So it requires no sixth sense to imagine the day, not far away, when football drops kickoffs altogether.
“Kickoffs are close to being extinct,” said former 49ers quarterback Steve Young, now an ESPN analyst.
For years, mounting evidence has linked football violence with brain trauma and life-threatening conditions. Now that we know the sport can produce deadly results, where do we go from here?
Tuesday: What will the future of football really look like?
Online: Read all the stories, watch videos, view photo slideshows and listen to our podcast on the subject at www.sfchronicle.com/future-of-football
Do not be surprised if football players routinely wear helmet or mouth-guard sensors in the not-so-distant future, to detect and potentially prevent concussions.
Pac-12 Conference schools already lean on technological advances in equipment. The conference announced in November 2017 its partnership with SyncThink, a Palo Alto company that uses an eye-tracking system to quickly gather data on the sideline. That could become a tool in helping trainers and doctors objectively determine when a player has sustained a concussion.
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SyncThink’s Eye-Sync device, essentially virtual-reality goggles to analyze eye movements and identify visual impairment, received FDA approval. But the agency also raised questions last year about using Eye-Sync to assess possible head trauma, telling the company to stop marketing the device in this way.
Mouth-guard sensors are another potential path to acquiring information about concussions and sub-concussive hits. Four high school programs in Florida are testing one version of a mouth-guard sensor this season, as is the University of Virginia. The NFL plans a limited rollout in 2019.
David Camarillo, an assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford, launched research in this area in 2011. Camarillo said mouth-guard sensors, which fit tightly along the upper teeth and take a precise measurement of what is happening to the skull, can help researchers understand the forces associated with concussions. That could lead to improved helmet standards, for instance.
Camarillo cautioned that there’s not yet enough scientific evidence for clinical decision-making.
Still, the NFL hopes position-specific helmets — individually tailored to the force typically absorbed by, say, linebackers or wide receivers — will become available as soon as 2020. Players at each position experience different impacts, an NFL study showed, and helmets potentially can be designed to minimize those impacts, according to a spokesman for Vicis, a Seattle equipment company.
For example, defensive players often knock quarterbacks backward. That leads to the back of quarterbacks’ helmets striking the turf; in theory, quarterback helmets can be designed to better absorb these blows.
Sam Browd, co-founder of Vicis, also sees helmets ultimately including a computer chip serving as a mobile lab.
“Helmets will be used to track players’ performance: gauge their speed, maneuverability and a variety of factors,” Browd said. “Maybe you can sense someone who will be dehydrated. The helmet will be the platform to embed various technologies.”
This summer, the Visalia Unified School District became the nation’s first to fully equip its varsity players with Vicis’ signature model, the Zero1. The helmet’s soft exterior bends on impact to better absorb the force of hits, with the hard layer (to protect the skull) moved inside. Zero1 ranked No. 1 in safety testing done at Virginia Tech, but it remains unproven how effectively new equipment reduces head injuries.
About 150 players on 26 NFL teams are using Vicis helmets this season, including nine 49ers and more than 20 members of the Kansas City Chiefs, most notably quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
Carter now is vice president of football operations at Atavus Sports, another Seattle company that provides “tackling analysis” to high school and college programs including Ohio State, Washington and San Jose State. Atavus conducted a three-day session in July for the Texas High School Coaches Association, its first alliance with a prep football governing body.
The essential message: Tackle rugby-style, shoulder first.
“We focus on changing the behavior,” Carter said. “I love the game and don’t want to see it go anywhere, but there needs to be a shift in the culture.”
Pete Carroll, head coach of the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, advocates a similar technique in his Seahawk Tackling Video, which has become a widely used tool among high school coaches (including De La Salle’s Justin Alumbaugh).
Another novelty likely to become common is the mobile, robotic tackling dummy pioneered at Dartmouth. This futuristic, remote-controlled invention, self-righting and practical, darts around the field with striking speed.
Players work on tackling techniques without hitting each other, reducing exposure to injuries. This helped convince Ivy League coaches to eliminate live tackling in practices.
That’s a potentially vital piece of the puzzle, because one Johns Hopkins University report noted that 62 percent of organized sports-related injuries occur during practice.
Young, the Hall of Fame quarterback whose career ended after a vicious hit and concussion in September 1999, predicted scientific advances on CTE will reshape the sport. Players might one day know, as Young suggested, exactly how much football could shorten their life span.
“Football will be hugely impacted by what CTE looks like in 10 to 15 years,” he said.
As it stands, the disease looks more ominous than it did even two years ago. In July 2017, an American Medical Association study found 110 of 111 brains of deceased former NFL players had CTE.
More news like this in the years ahead could further discourage parents from permitting their kids to play football, thinning the talent pool. And the pool already has shrunk, as Young pointed out.
“Most superior athletes played football in the 1950s through the ’90s,” he said. “But now it’s in parents’ minds that football is not safe, and therefore kids pick up other sports. That trend is not stopping, and it has to have an effect over a period of time.”
And that was barely 20 years ago.
Now when Alumbaugh gazes into the future, he pictures the effect of flag football and 7-on-7. De La Salle played in three such tournaments this past summer (essentially touch football), plus another six games against local opponents.
“The game will look a lot different in 20 or 30 years,” Alumbaugh said. “I’m not going to say it will be 7-on-7, because there will still be linemen, but I think that’s where a lot of kids’ skills will be. That’s what they’ll grow up doing.”
Walsh similarly sees value in 7-on-7, though he insisted the absence of running plays and a pass rush mean “it’s not even close to being football.” He also endorsed high school reforms limiting contact in practice and requiring severe punishment on hits to defenseless players.
Walsh would have been called “soft” for taking this view in his playing days, but that era is long gone. If coaches don’t change with the times, football in 2048 might bear little resemblance to its current incarnation.
“If we’d like this game to exist in 30 years,” Walsh said, “then all of us need to get on board.”